Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fearsome Journeys - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Fearsome Journeys is a fantasy anthology from Solaris, edited by the remarkably prolific Jonathan Strahan. I’ve enjoyed some of the other Solaris anthologies, and this one looked to have a good mix of authors I knew, and those I hadn’t previously heard of. As ever, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – but I don’t think there was a bad one in the bunch.

There were several standouts. “The Effigy Engine” from Scott Lynch, combined his sharply charming prose with a vivid world. There’s a certain amount of humour here as well, as a small unit of wizards attempt to help win a seemingly unwinnable war. The banter is familiar for a close knit team, and their personalities are large enough that they step off the page. There’s pyrotechnic thaumaturgy, snark, and a whisper of something deeper. This is a space I’d quite happily explore more of.

I also really enjoyed K.J. Parker’s entry, “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton”. This is probably no surprise to long term readers, who know I’m a massive fan of Parker’s work. Still, the tone here is pitch perfect – a pragmatic, tired knight, a man well past the point of his previous glories, dealing with something unusual. Admittedly, dealing with it with a sort of put upon disappointment, and a fairly deserved expectation that everything will go horribly wrong. There’s some heroics here, of a sort, and meditations on mortality and the virtues of duty. It’s a multi-layered piece, and one with something of a sting in the tail.

Glen Cook’s Black Company short, “Shaggy Dog Bridge” is probably the other main event in this collection, and it’s really rather well done. This is Croaker and his gang of miscreants in their early days, on the run from the Lady and her Taken. It’s a grim story in some ways, with rogue wizards and otherworldy monstrosities. There’s the seeping tone of noir that infuses a lot of Cook’s work, and the troops-eye-view of epic events which has always been the Black Company trademark. It’s a good story, too – occasionally funny, often deadly serious, and always very compelling.

I could go on – as I say, each of the stories inside of the collection is enjoyable. I will say that it feels like there’s something here for everyone. Low fantasy. High fantasy. Grimdark. If it’s got a label, you could probably apply it to one of the stories available here. The diversity of material on offer is impressive – from Kate Eliot’s insightful, nuanced, fairytale-esque story, through Daniel Abraham’s darker tale of an undying king, a narrative in vignettes where the subtext is as valuable as what’s on the page. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Ghost Makers” gives us character driven fantasy, driven by an automaton and a dead man – both of whom stroll off the page, large as life, in between hunting a killer.

In any event, there’s something for everyone here – it’s a collection whose imaginative breadth is its soul. Every tale may not be for you, but they’re all interesting takes on imaginative worlds, and worth investing your time in. (At time of review, it was also all of 99p on Kindle - give it a try!)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Court Of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark

The Court Of Broken Knives is a strong fantasy debut by Anna Smith Spark. It’s got absolute gads of cynicism, characters who range from the pragmatic through conflicted and into monstrous, and a world which encourages and rewards that sort of approach.

Speaking of the world – well, it’s complicated. There’s the remnants of a global empire – reminiscent of Rome in the late medieval period. They assert sovereignty over the world at large, and have a degree of social and cultural capital – but don’t control almost anything outside of their capital city. Still, that city is a monstrosity of wealth, still gilded by centuries of ruling the world. The street urchins dress in silk, and the decay is, whilst obvious, still masked by the urban grandeur. The mood of sorrowful decline is, I suspect, intentional – as is the feeling of self-inflicted wounds, of coiled vipers, of personal politics poisoning an imperial perspective. Of course, this is an empire in a desert, which doesn’t seem to have much of a sanding army – but does have a religion requiring the sacrifice of children. The cultural attitudes are expertly played here – saddened, but accepting of the necessity.
The empire is surrounded by its more vibrant successor states, which seem to have a more medieval mindset. There’s a fair amount of fortifications and stone walls – and a royal family put in place by a historical ruler who may also have been a demon. They’re prone to bouts of ecstatic madness, entwined with violence – and their people fear and love them for it. This is a tumultuous, often nihilistic world – but also one where there is potential for great beauty, and for the realisation of the better traits of humanity.

There’s a rough quartet of protagonists. Two of them sit within the remaining Imperial city. One is the High Priestess of their somewhat brutal god – a woman circumscribed by circumstance, with the potential to be more, restricted by her own power and position. She’s clever, observant, and, for someone who sacrifices children on a regular basis, surprisingly sane – but there’s twinges of visible damage there, and a recognition that perhaps the world isn’t limited to the walls of her temple. The contrast between her and one of the others, a hardened politician, a noble of the empire, is, I suspect, intentional. He’s wry, jaded, and not at all surprised by the worst in people – but at the same time, driven by the dream that was once his home, in an effort to sustain and create something better. There’s a vivid characterisation here, of a man in power, who has no interest in his wife sexually, but cares for her; who is prepared to enact horrors on old friends in the service of an ideal; who can be tormented by their own success, and justify it as failure being the worst option. Both of the imperials are vividly, cleverly portrayed – they certainly feel like people, if perhaps not people you would want to take out to dinner.

The others – well, I have great affection for Tobias. A mercenary squad leader, he’s thoughtful, always has an eye on the main chance, and is not at all afraid to turn his reflections into brutality if that’s what’s required. He’s ever-so-slightly conflicted, a everyman with more than an edge of darkness about him – surviving in a world which caters to and demands the use of his worst instincts. For all that he makes abhorrent choices, they are plausible, logical ones – and his tarnished view of the world is at once strange and familiar.

Then there’s another – one of Tobias’s band of mercenaries, he’s an enigma at first. Tormented by unknown demons, driven by unknown curses. If there’s a space here, it’s one of emotional distance or connection, switching from a need to escape the world to being bathed in it – usually in blood. This is a man who is sure of what he could be, but trying to escape it – through drugs, through drink, through murder. This last is one that is more difficult to sympathise with – but a complex, believable character, one whose emotional intensity and validity rises out of the prose, and makes it into something special.

The plot – well, there’s all sorts. Here are high politics, and low murder, often in one. Political assassinations as knife fights, gutters and blood, coarse language and red in the gutters. There’s also magic – explosive, typically, unpleasant, almost always. There’s plots, counterplots, and appallingly visceral battles. There’s something for everyone here, if you’re not squeamish about how you get it. The dialogue is typically snappy, with moments of emotional transcendence; the pacing is spot on, and I had to keep on turning pages to see what happens next. There are highs and lows here – the latter perhaps moving to contempt or to tears, the former transporting to joy.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s good stuff. This is smart, self-aware fantasy. The characters make sense, are easy to invest in, and reward that investment. The world is complex and believable. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this series goes, and I urge you to give it a try.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first in Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel”. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s the novel of one man’s journey. That journey is, of course, geographical – he moves ever upward through the levels of the eponymous tower, being enveloped in the strange societies, cultures and politics which hold sway there. But it’s also personal. The Senlin who begins the journey up the tower – well, he changes, and grows as the narrative proceeds – and not always for the better.

Senlin Ascends has a baroque, imaginative world. Along with Senlin, I was often left somewhat flabbergasted by the people whom he encountered. There were the showmen and grifters at ground level, of course – small time thieves and hustlers, charmers and liars. They exist within the constantly stirring entrance of the Tower, a first level fuelled by tourists and victims. At the same time, there’s a sparkling, carnival atmosphere to it – one where the barkers have sharper teeth hidden behind their smiles. But things only get stranger the further up the tower one goes. Each step is increasingly surreal, each movement away from the base also a step further into the machinations, machineries, and villainies of the increasingly bizarre denizens. There’s a sense here of Alice in Wonderland, with a cutting edge. I can’t say much about the rest of the environs without touching on spoilers – but I will say this: the tower is a fresh, imaginative tapestry of diverse, colourful locales, and it successfully conveys a sense of energy and corruption in one word after another. This is a roaring, virile place, crackling with life – and at the same time, is shot through with rot, coiled serpents just waiting to fall upon the unwary visitor. In other words – it’s great.

The characters…well, they’re an odd bunch, that’s for sure. Senlin is the protagonist, and walks into the tower at least as baffled as the reader, if not more so. He’s a man who has been shaped by his circumstances – a teacher in a fishing village. In fact, the only teacher in the village. He’s intelligent, with an unconscious air of superiority. He cares about his pupils – though with a degree more enthusiasm for the intelligent ones. He feels like a prim, proper man, confined within his own expectations – a self-constrained avatar of social mores. Still, there’s a wit and an incisive intelligence there, and, it appears, a passion. Senlin is in love with his wife – and he’s a romantic and an idealist. His romance is one of the great backdrops to his life, a brilliant surprise he’s determined to hold onto with both hands. Here the flames of his personality peek out a little behind his enforced fa├žade. Senlin walks with the reader, a narrator in the tower – and his passion and his restraints on it serve to make him feel very human.

Indeed, as the text progresses, Senlin’s internal geography shifts along with the external. Events force him to decide what sort of man he is, and exactly what he will do to accomplish his goals. The man who enters the ground floor of the tower for a honeymoon – well, let’s just say he may not be quite the same man that nears the top.

There’s a delightful crowd of assorted misfits alongside Senlin as he travels. They’re not all entirely trustworthy, and some of the antagonists are downright unpleasant. Still, when they’re given the time to shine, they do – be that in impassioned speeches on the human conditions, or in the odd brutal murder. In each case though, they’re imaginatively, convincingly portrayed – strange to us, but perhaps not strangers, in the broader sense. As the journey continues, they don’t become any less strange – but also become more familiar; it’s cleverly done, and left each of the supporting cast feeling memorable as I turned the pages.

The plot – well. As ever, no spoilers. Senlin is working his way through the tower hunting his wife. Along the way he’s exposed to the best and worst that the tower has to offer, from beer fountains to sky-ships, from loving families to murderous lunatics. The story is in the journey, in how Senlin adapts and changes in the face of challenges thrown up to him on each floor of the tower. There’s shades of Moby Dick, the protagonist driven to fulfil his heart’s desire, even with the associated costs. In any event, it’s a cracking read – there’s betrayals, firm friendships, battles, banter, and even true love. It’s a charming, fascinating piece, and I highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lock In - John Scalzi

Lock In is a near-future sci-fi mystery novel from John Scalzi. I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s work for years, and he has a penchant for tightly plotted, compelling mysteries – as with this year’s excellent “The Dispatcher”.

The world of Lock In should be reasonably familiar. People are still bipeds. The political systems we’re familiar with are still holding sway. The US still has a President. People still drive from place to place. There’s still coffee, bars, and mega-corporations. Sure, the cars are now self-driving, and the coffee places have a well-targeted marketing mechanism, but the people are. In the end, still people.
But the world has also changed. A global epidemic has left a small significant proportion of the global population ‘locked in’; paralysed but cognisant, unable to communicate with the outside world. That’s where the sci-fi comes in. Scalzi gives us neural interfaces, virtual worlds, and bodies which the locked in can hop into. It’s a world where, at least in the US, there’s an awareness of a certain kind of disability, an amelioration, and a well portrayed cultural adaption to that fact. The locked in, by virtue of their numbers, have become a minority demographic – one that acts under assistance and prejudice in equal measure. There’s echoes of the civil rights struggle here, and stronger reverberations for the prejudice that the disabled face daily. This is a society which is handling seismic shift in how its population is structured – and stumbling, well meaning, toward an uncertain end goal. Quite what the status quo will be is not yet defined – and that liquidity, that lack of social definition, makes for an intriguing and compelling world.

The characters – well, our central duo are familiar in the tropes of the mystery genre – a rookie detective and his more experienced, emotionally wounded partner.

The former, Chris, is also locked-in. They’re relatively well off, earnest, and intellectually curious. There’s enough self-awareness of privilege there not to make Chris a chore to read, and their intelligence and focus means that the reader can follow along with their analysis easily enough. There’s some focus on getting through things by the book, a degree of caution at the start of the text, wrapped around a lack of confidence. What’s driving Chris, the need to be distinct from their family whilst also being a part of it, is sketches out in the emotional reactions within the text – the relationships are convincing, complicated, and occasionally startling – as with any family.

Chris’s partner is another matter. Older, a veteran of the FBI, she’s both familiar with how things work, and perhaps more than a little cynical about the fact that they work at all. She’s dry, wry, and obviously ferociously clever. That she’s also a survivor – well, that’s inherent in her attitude, from the first moment. Quite what experiences have transformed her – well, those we learn alongside Chris. But I can say that this is not a book which backs away from emotional heft for its characters. They have their issues, and those issues make sense within their own context – but they’re also raw and human.

There’s a slew of supporting cast of course, from Chris’s room-mates, to their family, from victims to suspects. What ties them together is that each gets enough depth to be convincing. We don’t see much of the room-mates say, or of the CEO of a large technology corporation – but when we do, their motives, their meanings, and their humanity are no less clear. The main cast have greater room to manoeuvre, but it’s nice to see the support given enough depth to be convincing.

The plot – well, no spoilers. It’s a techno-thriller, with additional sci-fi elements. It opens with a murder investigation, and suggests links to larger issues. The plotting is tight and convincing. If I wasn’t always a step ahead of our investigators, I was certainly looking at the evidence alongside of them. The central investigation is tense and well-paced – with sufficient evidence produced for the reader that they can work with the characters. There’s some marvellously explosive action as well, though it tends to come with undisguised consequences. Both the more explosive moments and the investigation work within the larger social tapestry of the world - with a consistent internal logic and a cracking conclusion.

If you’re in the market for an inventive, imaginative sci-fi mystery, then this is probably the book for you. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schedule changes!

Morning all,

Due to circumstances outside this blog, we're moving to putting reviews out on a Wednesday. Mark your calendars for next week!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tyrant's Throne - Sebastien De Castell

Tyrant’s Throne is the fourth and final entry in Sebastien De Castell’s “Greatcoats” quartet. I’ve been a big fan of the series. It combines an energetic and adventurous buccaneering style with moments of great emotional intensity and honesty. I’m desperately sad to see the series end – but can safely say it went out in style.

Following the previous instalment, Falcio and his band of Greatcoats are getting ready to put Aline, the daughter of their murdered king, onto the throne of Tristia. It’s not an easy process. We’re shown the political factions which swarm around Tristia, most of them seemingly motivated by self-interest. None of them are particularly keen on Aline – but they’re coming around to holding their noses and accepting her, because the alternative is even more civil unrest in a country which has been tormented by uprisings and other chaos for years. Still, politics isn’t the natural battleground for Greatcoats – they have a tendency to stab and/or shoot arrows at things. The atmosphere is febrile, to say the least.
Fortunately, in between the deal-making, another threat has raised its head.  Those outside the borders of Tristia are eyeing up the real estate. There’s a whole world outside the nation we’ve spent three books in, and if we only get to see a little of it this time around, I can safely say that as a culture, it’s excellently crafted. The traditions and society of the outside world are sympathetically and plausibly drawn – they are not a thoughtless antagonist, but one where the conflict is drawn out from cultural differences, and the social changes that we’ve seen in previous books in the series. If you can’t sympathise with the potential threat, you can certainly empathise with them.

If the world is being thrown open to broader horizons, the characters are their well established selves. Brasti, who can’t stop running his mouth, even whilst putting arrows into people, and Kest, the laconic, nigh undefeatable shieldman are here, backing Falcio, our long running protagonist. The relationship between the trip remains an absolute joy. The banter is sometimes caustic, often hilarious, and occasionally exposes the raw trust which they each have in the others. The dialogue thus remains fresh, funny, but often surprisingly affecting – these are people who have known each other a long time, faced men and gods together, and, in the end, aren’t inclined to lie to each other or to themselves. There’s some final threads that get resolved here, which have vexed loyal readers for years (how *did* Falcio beat Kest and become First Cantor in the first place?); but there’s also some refreshing revelations as well. If the wit helps mask the raw intensity of the emotional payload, that make it no less real – and the prose gives it strength and surprising clarity. As Falcio and his oldest friends work out who they are and where they stand, I was wrenched between delighted laughter and utter heartbreak in every other line.

In honesty, this was a book whose dialogue and relationships gave me more than one belly laugh, and also left me in tears. I can’t give a stronger recommendation than that.

The plot – well, it starts slowly, with the aforementioned politicking. It’s interesting stuff, and the tension builds to keep you turning pages. But there’s a lot more going on here. Without spoilers, I’d suggest that the stakes have never been higher for Falcio and his band. There’s some effectively, terrifyingly drawn battles, and duels that left me with my heart in my mouth. This is a story of resilience, and of friendship, of love and trust – and the consequences of those things. There’ blood and steel, but in the end, this is about shaping the world, and perhaps more importantly, the people we care about within it.

Would I recommend it? If you’ve not read the Greatcoats before now, I’d say you need to get on that first. If you’re wondering whether to finish it though, this is an unequivocal yes. Get on that. Get the book, read the book. It’s a conclusion which relies on what came before, but uses that emotional depth and connection to provide an absolutely brilliant payoff. Read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

The original conceit of this book - Galileo interacting with indivduals from far in the future - does not seem that impressive at first blush. Indeed, a brief office poll produced a great deal of derision. However, first impressions are sometimes deceiving, as they proved in this case.

The characters are well realised, including the epynonymous Galileo. Many authors might have hesitated to personify such a huge historicla figure, but the author does so smoothly, and generates a believably flawed character whom the reader can quickly come to empathise with. The medieval settings are extremely well detailed, and clearly the result of some solid research. While some commentators may be upset at the modern linguistic turns which invest the narrative of these medieval characters, I found that it made the text more accessible, and certainly more engaging.

The plot itself is convoluted, with enough little twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages, though on occasion (particularly earlier in the book), the cryptic goings on are not given enough depth to really pull on the reader's intrigue.

Surprisingly, I found that the main failing of this text was in the portrayal of the 'future', which was given as much, if not more depth than the historical past with which it intersected. However, despite this effort, it often seemed unreal, and the characters harder to understand or empathise with. On the other hand, this may have been intentional.

Overall, the text is an intriguing and evocative read, and one which I believe I will return to more than once, as I'm sure there are pieces of the puzzle that I missed. Well worth the wait, and well worth the read.